Van Leeuwen [Official Photo]
It’s not just nostalgia or the enduring power of that neon-orange cheese powder. This gimmick is actually delicious.
Most of the time, gimmicky food mashups are the definition of disappointing. While the idea of candy-flavored cheese or ice cream infused with the flavors of an everything bagel might be compelling to some, most people are so put off by the concept of such a bizarre combination that the idea of eating something that weird is off the table. The products purpose is less for eating and more for Twitter gags and outrage, which is often how the brands intentionally designed them. This, however, is not the case with New York creamery Van Leeuwen’s new macaroni-and-cheese flavor, which is nothing short of magical.
In collaboration with Kraft, the makers of the famed blue box that fueled many of our childhoods, the upscale ice cream shop, known for decadent French ice creams like Royal Wedding (elderflower and lemon) and its most famous Earl Grey, will debut a new flavor made with the cheese powder that gives Kraft’s macaroni and cheese its signature neon-orange color on July 13. And however skeptical you may be about the pairing of macaroni and cheese and ice cream, I regret to inform you that this unhinged mashup is actually delicious.
Upon cracking open the first pint, which was shipped to my door shrouded in dry ice to protect from the blistering Texas heat, the flavor’s inspiration was immediately evident. The cheese powder — with a little help from turmeric, according to the ingredient list — makes a scoop of the ice cream look near-identical to the sauce that coats the noodles in a classic Kraft dinner, with a bright orange color that is sort of reminiscent of sherbert left by a nuclear testing site for too long. It doesn’t boast a particularly cheesy smell, and blessedly, there aren’t any little bits of noodles scattered throughout to really mimic a chilly version of this childhood classic.
Upon taking the first bite, I was hooked. Half of the pint had disappeared by the time I looked up, and I have no regrets. The cheese powder combines with Van Leeuwen’s rich base, made with milk, cream, and sugar, to produce a buttery flavor that’s only slightly cheesy. It doesn’t exactly evoke a bowl of macaroni and cheese in terms of texture, thankfully, but the flavor is strikingly similar. It’s lightly funky, and more complex than the classic blue-box dinner. It’s one of those foods that’s so uniquely compelling that you’re going to be confused while eating it, but definitely won’t want to stop.
The seemingly weird combination of cheese powder and ice cream works because its ingredients are really not all that different from what you’d typically pair Kraft’s cheese powder with. Macaroni and cheese is already made with milk and cream, and many recipes for the dish call for a little bit of sugar — a tablespoon or so — to balance out all that tangy dairy. Salty-sweet is an unbeatable flavor combination, and that’s exactly what’s going on here. The only thing that’s absent is the noodles, and they are absolutely not missed.
While this concept may seem totally bizarre, it’s not exactly uncommon in the United States and beyond. Ice creams made with queso fresco — or helado de queso — are common in Mexico and in Mexican snack shops across my home state of Texas, often garnished with fresh fruit. In the Philippines, cheddar cheese is such a popular ice cream flavor that it is mass-produced and sold in grocery stores and scoop shops. The internet, including the New York Times’s Cooking section, is replete with recipes for transforming tangy goat cheese into soft, decadent ice cream.
Perhaps it is largely nostalgia that makes this flavor so compelling to me. As a ‘90s kid, I regularly ate macaroni and cheese out of the blue box without complaint. I was a tween when Easy Mac, the microwavable version of Kraft macaroni and cheese, hit the market. It quickly became a regular part of the afternoon snack rotation, and in my stoner teen years, was the source of endless experimentation, including just pouring the cheese powder over various foods (popcorn, frozen pizza) to see if it would taste good. It usually did.
After the trauma of the last year, many brands are turning to nostalgia because they know we’re desperately looking for comfort, and often looking back to our childhoods. Breweries are dreaming up beers infused with candy and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Dunkaroos made a comeback. Breakfast cereal brands are attempting to woo back jaded millennials with “retro recipes” for favorites like Trix, Golden Grahams, and Cookie Crisp, which promise a “permanent return of the ‘80s taste.” Whether or not these nostalgia-fueled foods will actually comfort us in a time of extreme crisis — existential and otherwise — seems contingent on the individual, but clearly we’re pining for them.
If this flavor were not a limited time offering — and $12 a pint, to boot — I could envision myself keeping a pint of the macaroni and cheese ice cream in the freezer, just waiting for a hot apple pie to come out of the oven. In my lower moments, I might dip straight into the container with shortbread cookies. Either way, this is an ice cream that somehow manages to be much more compelling and appealing than the gimmick that birthed it.